Before there can be a rebirth, whether of a nation or an artistic ethos or a musical genre or a sports club, there must be a downfall. Before the downfall, there must be a birth and a rise. And the first prerequisite to an understanding of the eventual rebirth is an understanding of all of that – of the life that came before it.
The first prerequisite to an understanding of Arsenal’s new era, therefore, is an understanding of the managerial life cycle of Arsene Wenger.
By now, and especially now, as dawn sets on a day of reflective odes and opuses, you know the story. You know the story of the revolutionary; of the outsider who molded a club to his liking and forced an entire country to follow. You understand that England did follow, and eventually caught up.
What you must also understand, however, is that the connection between the revolution and the demise will show Arsenal the way forward.
What you must understand is that Wenger floundered for the same reason he flourished. He was enabled by control. He had the keys to the club, the metaphorical switchboard at his fingertips. And in the beginning, back on the other side of the millennium, that was a blessing.
When he arrived on English shores, Wenger wasn’t just smarter than his peers; the breadth of his superior knowledge was vast. He knew more about tactics than his counterpart at Chelsea. But he also knew more about nutrition than anybody at Manchester United; more about social psychology than anybody at Liverpool; more about economics than anybody at Leeds; more about kinesiology and high-performance than anybody at Newcastle or Aston Villa. His diverse brilliance propelled Arsenal into the 21st century. It also earned him even more control.
But brilliance, as it tends to do, inspired emulation. When Arsenal’s rivals realized that there were advantages to be had in previously ignored departments, they hired experts in those fields. They hired nutritionists and psychologists and data analysts and directors of football.
Arsenal, of course, did too. Wenger’s failure, seemingly, was an inability or unwillingness to empower them – to bestow his knowledge on others and entrust them with responsibilities that were initially his. And as he retained total control, economic principles as fundamental as the importance of a division of labor took effect. Even if Wenger’s expertise measured up to specialists at other clubs, his productivity couldn’t. His refusal to relinquish control left his genius spread too thin for the modern game, so thin that it was no longer genius at all, but instead stubbornness.
[More Arsenal coverage: ‘Arsene who?’ Wenger leaves a complicated legacy]
His stubbornness was unflappable, and its unflappability, in the end, made him untenable. Wenger without control would have been a cellist without a bow. Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis spoke optimistically last spring about Wenger being a “catalyst for change.” Less than a year later, the board realized that was implausible. According to multiple reports, the club decided Wenger had to go.
He had to go not because he was a bad coach, but because the top-down organizational and decision-making structures his employment necessitated had to go.
The rebirth, therefore, is less about replacing Wenger, and more about ensuring a like-for-like replacement isn’t necessary. It’s about dispersing control, sharing decision-making responsibility, establishing a more equitable balance of power, and finding a new manager willing and able to operate within it.
The process is already underway. It began last summer with the impending end of Wenger’s reign coming into focus. Two loyal Wenger lieutenants, Steve Rowley and Dick Law, parted ways with the club. Sven Mislintat, his eye for off-the-radar talent reminiscent of Wenger’s 20 years ago, was poached from Borussia Dortmund as Arsenal’s new director of recruitment. Raul Sanllehi came in from Barcelona as a “head of football relations” to lead transfer negotiations. Darren Burgess, a pioneering Australian fitness expert, arrived as director of high performance. Huss Fahmy, formerly of British cycling’s Team Sky, was brought on board to bring his legal expertise to player contracts. As Jonathan Northcroft wrote in The Times, “2017 was the club’s biggest year of behind-the-scenes change since Wenger arrived in 1996.”
The foundation, in other words, has been laid. But the new cathedral couldn’t be built until the old cathedral – Wenger – had been torn down.
Now that the last stage of the teardown is scheduled for May 13, the reconstruction can begin in earnest. Its figurehead will be Wenger’s successor, and the search for that successor will monopolize coverage of the transition.
[More Arsenal coverage: 13 possible Wenger successors]
But construction projects take time. Arsenal’s will take considerable time. Its squad is the worst of the Big Six. It’s also the oldest. The rebuild must be thorough; so it must be slow.
Which presents Arsenal with a dilemma: Who is the ideal manager to oversee the rebuild, or at least the initial stages of it? Is it a seasoned stabilizer who’ll act as a buffer, soaking up the pressure of succeeding a legend and paving way for the next visionary? Or is symbiotic growth preferable, that visionary developing alongside the players and the backroom specialists who’ll also guide Arsenal into the post-Wenger era?
But alas, the more important questions might be, will that manager accept the club’s evolving infrastructure? Is that infrastructure already sturdy enough to support an inexperienced up-and-comer? Is the club willing to accept that success might not come immediately? Is it willing to endure more failure and maintain a long view anyway?
Few modern football clubs are. But Arsenal, for so long, was different. It was different because Arsene was different. Because under Wenger, it evolved. Can it evolve again without him, all while understanding why the previous regime ultimately fell?
That question – and not any one player or manager – will define life after Wenger in North London.
– – – – – – –
More soccer from Yahoo Sports:
• Arsene Wenger will step down after 22 seasons as Arsenal manager
• Gulino: Wenger’s legacy is now up to us to figure out
• Arsenal players, legends, executives react to Wenger’s announcement
• Who will succeed Wenger at Arsenal? Here are the top candidates